Speaking about Mary was very difficult for me in the early days. I started in a low evangelical church which simply ignored Mary.
I trained at an Anglo catholic Monastery that lauded Mary to the high heavens and virtually worshipped her which frankly made me physically sick.
I reasoned there must be an authentically Christian way of seeing Mary that trod a path somewhere between those two extremes and eventually I did find it, in the iconography and theology of the Eastern Orthodox church and Rowan Williams.
Amongst other things I used to be Archbishop Rowan Williams personal representative to the Patriarchs of the Orthodox churches of Romania and Bulgaria, called rather grandly his Apokrisarios and Rowan too had an intense interest in Orthodoxy and wrote a wonderful little book called “Ponder these things” where he wrote about praying with icons – well worth having if you could ever get your hands on one.
First of all, it is rarely if ever that Mary is depicted on her own in Orthodoxy. She is to be understood solely in relation to her Son Jesus. She is thus guarded from the sin of becoming an object of worship in her own right.
Icons are not “painted” they are “written”. They are words in paint and they are written for us to read and speak to us. They are termed “Windows into heaven”.
Now if you would turn to the reverse of your pew sheet you will find one particular style called Eleousia (meaning the virgin of heavenly kindness). The other two main styles are “The one who points the way” – Hodegetria and “The virgin of the sign – Orans. And I will incorporate insights from those two other styles along the way.
Look at the icon. See how intimate it is. The Christ child embraces Mary cheek to cheek. His arm encircles her neck and fondles her face, one foot is thrust towards us, and his other hand grabs Mary’s veil. Many versions have the text from the Song of songs (2:6) behind it which reads “His left hand is under my head and his right hand embraces me”
Christ’s eyes are fixed on Mary and Mary imploringly looks out at us. and Mary’s hand is beckoning and pointing us to Jesus as if to say “Not me, but Him”.
Here we are being told about the intensity and immediacy of their love.
Despite what we know about God through Christ most of us still have as our starting point a notion that God stands at quite a distance from us, waiting for us to make a move towards Him so this image can be quite shocking when you consider that the child is God and Mary represents humanity.
His love is like an eager and boisterous child scambling up his mother’s lap, seizing handfuls of her clothing and nuzzling his face against hers, hungry for sheer physical closeness.
Instead of a distance between humanity and God we have depicted a movement so direct and intimate it can be quite embarrassing. Mary’s expression does seem half embarrassed by the attention.
We see here that God is not ashamed to be our God. Not only does not mind our company, he is hungry for it, passionate for it. We have here a picture of God’s hungry love for us. Think now of Jesus’ parable of the Father in the prodigal son running down the road to meet his lost son
He loves the reflection of his love in creation, cannot bear to be separate from it and goes eagerly in search of it. Think now of all the parables about things lost – the lost coin, lost sheep, prodigal son again, eager to be reunited which his own which rebelled against him.
How we respond to such intense love I think is shown in Mary’s gaze which is looking directly at you. I ventured earlier, an embarrassment, but she almost looks a bit tragic, burdened. How do I, how do we possibly respond to such love and devotion? How do we begin to receive it?
Mary looks at us with eyes full of love, grief and care as she is the first one to feel the weight of receiving of this almost desperate love.
Look at this icon and what does it tell you about yourself – your own self perception. You are the object of divine love just as Mary is.
But accepting this love turns things upside down just as any child turns the life of a parent upside down. So it is risky and things will change.
As in any icon of Jesus and Mary, Mary is the sign of our humanity engaged by God. In fact, Mary is creation itself embraced by God, and left in disarray and shock and disorientation when we realise the true nature of God.
God is here not a distant parent, or a perhaps threatening adult love but as a hungry child.
God cannot bear to be separated from us because he cannot bear to be separated from his own divine action. The creator has a burning desire to be reunited with his creation.